January 25, 2009
Obama's story inspires search for roots
By Mike Taibbi, NBC News Correspondent
It took awhile to find it. I'd just moved to a new apartment and a
new office location and there were still boxes to unpack in both
places – but there it was, a plain manila file with my handwritten
words on the tab, Records/Honolulu."
I read the first few paragraphs of the "Confidential Report of the
Department of Public Welfare, Territory of Hawaii," about Donald
Grant Funk Salinas, a "lightly-tanned youngster of Filipino-Dutch-
Chinese-Hawaiian background ... underweight and frequently ill ...
never under the care of his natural mother for any length of time."
The report, five single-spaced pages written by a social worker on
behalf of a couple looking to become foster parents, was about me.
Three years ago, returning to Hawaii more than a half-century after
I'd left the place where I was born, I'd made a formal request for
any records connected to my birth and early history.
The social worker's report was one of several documents in the
package I eventually received.
I'd read everything once and had a few conversations and e-mail
exchanges with a half-brother I'd been put in touch with, the oldest
of the three sons my "natural mother" went on to have after she'd
matured and married following a troubled childhood that included
having a child as an unwed teen. Her maiden name was Camila Salinas
and she'd died in 1998.
Once I had the bare bones of the story – mine as well as hers,
including two photos of her – I had put it all in the file and packed
it away, until now.
Search for own 'American story'
It was in Ireland at Christmas, spending the holidays with my wife
and her family, when I thought about that file again for the first
time in years, and it was the incoming president who made me think
about it. Specifically, it was finally reading his first
book, "Dreams From My Father," that made me see my own multi-racial
and largely unknown history in a different light.
As I read about Barack Obama's first trip back to Kenya, his late
father's home, it seemed to me his journey of self-discovery was only
partly a search for the unknown components of his racial and family
history. It was also the flesh on the bone to his frequent assertion
during the campaign that his was a peculiarly American story. In
Ireland, closing the last page of his book one midnight, sitting by
the fireplace, I thought, "I guess I'm an American in that way
I'd always been deliberately incurious about my background, telling
myself and anyone who'd questioned me about it that I enjoyed the
mystery. I liked not knowing. In fact, I'd had just one substantive
conversation about it that I remembered, when I was 7 or 8, with
my "adopted" mother, Gaetana Taibbi.
She and her husband, Salvatore, had taken in three foster children
from the New York Foundling agency and had eventually adopted us and
given us their family name. In that one conversation, she told me I'd
been born in Hawaii – the same home state as Obama – to a 16-year-old
Hawaiian-Filipino girl who'd given me up to an orphanage, and that
I'd spent several years in Hawaii either there or in foster care
placements before somehow ending up in New York at the Foundling
Hospital. She never offered much more than that. I don't remember
asking for more.
Growing into adolescence, eventually leaving the Taibbi household and
beginning a reporter's life as a teenager, I was always oddly
comfortable not knowing any more of my own story. Neither black nor
white but ethnic in some undefined way, neither rich nor destitute,
privileged nor isolated by class or education, I used bits of my
scant biography as needed to gain entry into one different world
It wasn't until the mid-`70s, when Alex Haley published Roots, a
watershed exploration of one man's family and racial history, that I
was urged by a colleague incredulous at my lack of curiosity about my
own journey to at least look for a few answers.
Start of a long journey
I didn't exactly dive into the task but did go as far as to locate a
longtime official of the Foundling Hospital. A month after I'd
related information about the Taibbi family and the skeletal story
I'd been told about my birth and infancy, I received a short letter
from that official.
All she could add to the few facts I'd been told, she wrote, was that
my birth mother was "an attractive young Filipino-Hawaiian girl named
Camila, a girl of average intelligence, all of whose siblings died in
childbirth." My father, she added, was likely "An American
serviceman with the last name "Denny," address unknown.
Before Sal and Gae Taibbi took me in as a foster placement and gave
me their family name, she wrote, I'd been known as Loren Ames Denny,
though it appeared that my birth mother had originally named me
Keoni, Hawaiian for "John."
It wasn't much – less than a minute to narrate the whole fragmented
story – but it's what I had, and I didn't look any further until I
returned to Hawaii three decades later.
Sitting in my Manhattan apartment, looking through
the "Records/Honolulu" file again, I was surprised by all the details
I'd forgotten, though I'd surely read them before.
From the emails from my "half-brother": that his mother – my mother
too, of course – was quite dark-skinned "and had often worked as many
as three manual labor jobs to support the family after her first
husband died." That while she was "funny … and charming," she had a
dark and fiercely angry side too and seemed to be a "woman … full of
secrets." Apparently, I was one of them. Her father had been known
on Oahu as "the Mayor of Mauna Lui," a sort of corporate ghetto for
one of Hawaii's largest pineapple processing companies, a popular and
compelling figure with one especially tragic aspect in his life:
none of the six children he had with his common-law wife survived
childbirth except Camila, our mother.
That social worker's report added as many questions as it answered,
in my re-reading of it. The reference to my "Filipino-Dutch-Chinese-
Hawaiian background" wasn't all that reliable, the social worker
concluded, since the "Donald Grant Funk" on an early birth
certificate of mine was only based on "the putative father," and
possibly a name invented by my mother to avoid embarrassing my actual
father, "a Chinese-American who is reported to be a married man." The
report describes my mother as a "runaway" who in her teen years was
a "ward of the court" housed either in foster care or in a series of
detention facilities. One of those facilities was the Kawailoa
Training School, from which she was on parole when she became
But though she was judged to be "quite immature, impulsive and
negligent of her baby" and did sign consent papers to release the
baby for adoption or foster placement, she "expressed a desire from
the beginning … to keep her baby" and only gave up when she concluded
she was incapable of looking after the infant on her own and "…did
not want to see her baby moved from one place to another." And once
she gave up, she gave up for good: several attempts were made to
find her for further discussions, the social worker concluded, "but
her whereabouts … remain unknown."
'Wanted a better life for her children'
There was sadness in that story, without question, but as I read and
re-read the documents in the file I thought about what I knew and
could surmise about the story she left behind. The story of the
family she eventually had, the children she raised. And, as Barack
Obama says he did during his own journey into the past, I wondered if
it was fair to guess at what my mother must have dreamed for me, even
as she abandoned me, deciding she could not do the best job of
delivering me into those dreams.
"All her life," my half-brother told me in one phone call, "she
talked about wanting a better life, yes, for herself … but more than
that, she wanted a better life for her children than she'd had."
And she made that happen: After years as a struggling single parent
following the death of her first husband, she married again, her
second husband a good man who finally gave her and her three sons a
life of comfort and stability.
My half brother didn't know until he learned of my existence that his
mother probably wanted that better life for me, too, and had started
me on the way to exactly that when she made what seems from the
documents to have been a difficult decision to surrender me to
Honolulu's Department of Public Welfare.
It was apparently the right decision, though: My first stop was a
foster placement where, a subsequent report says, I was soon "making
steady progress, receiving good physical care and emotional
stimulation … a normal, happy youngster."
I was always lucky enough to make "steady progress" from there: from
Hawaii to New York, and from the Taibbi family that raised me to the
other friends and teachers and mentors who cared for me along the
way – including families of different races and economic
circumstances – with the help of the national "social contract' that
offered the possibility of incentives and protections in equal
measure. There was always the availability of "emotional
stimulation," always the chance for a "normal, happy" life.
Another "American story," as I now see it, in ways I never have